When her kids matter-of-factly reported that the toilet in their New York home was acting up, Jessa Jones-Burdett didn’t initially suspect that anything was amiss. After all, in a home with four small kids and two adults, all things—toilets included—are subject to a little extra wear and tear. A finicky toilet was just par for the course. Later when she noticed her iPhone was missing, Jessa still didn’t realize that something was wrong. The kids were constantly picking it up and depositing it somewhere else in the house. She was sure she’d find the errant phone eventually.
It wasn’t until Jessa checked Find My iPhone and saw an angry ‘X’ instead of a location that the truth of what happened hit her like a truck: the plugged toilet was not a coincidence. One of the kids had flushed her phone into the plumbing. It was down there still—jammed in the toilet bend. And Jessa had to get it out.
She snaked the line, trying to dislodge the stubborn phone. But it was no use. The iPhone was iStuck.
“I got so frustrated with that project,” Jessa recalled. “I hauled that toilet out to the front yard and [...] I sledgehammered the thing right in the front yard. And there it was--my iPhone, right in the bend of it.”
Once liberated, the phone was waterlogged but surprisingly intact. After cleaning with alcohol and drying, the phone turned on. The screen worked fine, and the camera was undamaged. But the phone wasn’t charging anymore. After some hunting around on iFixit’s troubleshooting forums, Jessa determined that a tiny charging coil had fritzed out during the iPhone’s underwater excursion.
“And it just seemed like a minor little problem,” said Jessa. “So I started looking into how to restore that one tiny function of the phone.”
That investigation would change her life. A couple of years after the toilet incident, and Jessa is now a master of gadget repair, a micro soldering expert, and a proprietress of a thriving board-level repair business: iPad Rehab. All that while balancing her role as a stay-at-home mom.
Once a fixer, always a fixer
So, how does a busy mom land on electronics repair as a vocation? Turns out, fixing electronics wasn’t much of a leap at all. Jessa’s always been a natural tinkerer and the family handywoman. She’s always been a problem solver. And she’d already devoted most of her life to fixing things—it’s just that the things Jessa was accustomed to fixing were organic, instead of mechanical.
After attending University of Maryland at College Park to study molecular biology, Jess earned a PhD in human genetics from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She studied DNA mutations and their connection to diseases like cancer. And she chose that field because she wanted to fix the human body on a cellular level.
“I’m not really that keen on learning for the sake of understanding. I like to understand for the sake of fixing,” Jessa explained.
After Johns Hopkins, Jessa had two sons and taught biology at a New York university. Life was busy, but it was good. Then (as it often does), life threw her and her husband, Jeff Burdett, a twist. A big one: twin girls. She left her position at the college and settled into the business of raising the kids as a stay-at-home mom.
It wasn’t until the iPhone found its way down the toilet that Jessa rekindled her fascination for fixing things. And since she’s a molecular biologist by training, it was no wonder that she gravitated towards fixing really, really small things.
The flushed iPhone presented Jessa with an interesting challenge. Fixing the charging coil required delicate repairs directly to the motherboard. Basically, Jessa needed to perform brain surgery on her phone.
“There’s a lot of people who think ‘Oh, if I mess something up on the motherboard, then that’s the end of the line.’ You need to replace the whole motherboard, which is essentially the device. And that’s not true,” Jessa explained. “A lot of components on the motherboard are like little tiny LEGOs. You find the one that’s broken, then you can pick it up and put another one on.”
But that process—picking one micro-component off the board and replacing it—requires micro soldering, a precision trade not widely practiced in the US. Mostly it’s done overseas, in places like China, and India, and Eastern Europe. Places where resources and replacement parts are a bit more scarce.
“It seemed that people, especially in the Eastern European group, have a different pressure to repair than we do,” Jess said of her initial investigation into micro soldering. “It may be less easy to just go down to the Apple store and get another iPhone, so you have a greater pressure to repair what you have. They are just total masters of repair.”
Jessa found the experts online, and asked them to teach her everything they knew. She bought the right equipment and she practiced on dead phones. It took a year of trial and error, but Jessa taught herself how to microsolder. And then, two years ago, she decided to put her new skill to good use: she started running MommyFixit—a general device repair service—out of her home.
Jessa repaired broken screens, swapped batteries, and fixed motherboards. But the demand for board-level repairs was so high that eventually she transitioned to specialty micro soldering. MommyFixit became iPad Rehab. Now she does 20 to 30 repairs each week (“all day, every day,” she said with a laugh). Mostly, her clients are other repair shops. They send iPad Rehab the boards they’ve messed up. She fixes the boards at home and sends them back.
Essentially, Jessa is a resurrectionist. She resuscitates devices that are beyond reclamation—the ones that are well and truly dead.
“There is of course the personal satisfaction in taking something that is a paperweight and returning it to life again,” Jessa said. “That always is a drug-like, positive experience.”
And she’s trying to share the joy of fixing with her kids. Jessa’s seven-year-old son can do iPad screen repairs. Her nine-year-old son enjoys soldering. And her twin daughters consider Jessa’s toolbox as an extension of their own toy box. In the Burdett household, you see, repair is very much a family activity.
Mobilizing repair moms
If Jessa has her way, she’s not going to be the only mom in town who repairs electronics. In fact, she’s training other moms as mobile repair technicians. She teaches them repair skills, gives them a place to practice, gets them parts, and instills them with the confidence they need to start their own MommyFixit repair businesses. It’s a job they can do without feeling like they’re sacrificing their family, Jessa explained. Moms can repair phones while the kids are at school, or salvage an iPad while the toddlers are napping.
“The stay-at-home-mom community is huge and full of talent,” Jessa explained. “Everybody would like to have some way to make some money that allows them to be flexible and lets them use their brains. And there’s really no reason that repair can’t do that. Women, in particular, are fantastic at repair of tiny devices.”
Better yet, an at-home repair business doesn't involve selling weird lotions or jewelry or knives. No cult-like, multi-level marketing seminars. No aggressive sales pitches for friends and family. No quotas. Just screwdrivers, a workspace, and some repair parts—then they, too, can learn the satisfaction of bringing a dead device back to life. And make a little cash along the way.
UPDATE: Many readers have inquired what sort of equipment Jessa is using. So, we asked. Her soldering station is the Hakko FM-203, with FM-2023 hot tweezers, FM-2032 micro pencil, and a standard Hakko regular iron. She also has a Hakko hot air station. For her microscope, she's using the AmScope SM-4TZ-144A Professional Trinocular Stereo Zoom Microscope. Check out Jessa’s website. It’s got a ton of information on gadget repair and micro soldering. And follow her on Facebook for more repair tips and tricks.